Blog Post

What does Two Spirit mean?

Two-spirit is a term used in indigenous Native American and First Nations cultures, classed as a ‘third gender’. It is also used by some Aboriginal and other indigenous cultures. In basic terms, it means someone has both male and female spirits and they identify as both. 

Two-spirit is generally considered a form of non-binary identity, because it doesn’t fit within the traditional male/female binary view of gender. Some compare two-spirit to bigender, which is used in a similar way in non-indigenous cultures. Similarly to bigender, it encompasses two or multiple genders, and people with these identify with both masculinity and femininity.

Two-spirit is actually an umbrella term that refers to a range of different gender identities which all share this existence outside of the traditional gender boundary. Various indigenous communities and cultures have their own specific genders outside of male and female, and two-spirit is a term that includes all these different terms and is used most often by non-indigenous people to refer to this range of genders. For many indigenous people and cultures, two-spirit is a more accurate and culturally sensitive word than non-binary, which is primarily used by non-indigenous people.

Download HER app

Where does the term two-spirit come from?

The term two-spirit was created to refer to Ojibwe, an indigenous North American language. At an LGBTQ+ conference in Canada in 1990, the term was discussed as a culturally respectful way to refer to ‘third genders’ in Native American and First Nations cultures. The conference was in Winnipeg, which was originally Ojibwe land, hence why their language was chosen to be translated to coin the term.

The term has been criticised for referring to two genders because it perpetuates the gender binary and the terms in different Native American languages generally don’t reinforce that binary. However, it is still generally accepted to be the best term to refer to these genders.

There are over 500 surviving Native American cultures and the term is also used by various indigenous cultures around the world. Across these cultures, there are hundreds of different languages with different ways of describing and performing gender.

Cree is one First Nations culture that has many words that refer to individuals that act, dress or live as a different gender to the one they were assigned at birth. Nádleeh or nádleehi refer to people who identify differently to the gender they were assigned at birth in Navajo culture. Literally, the word means to be changed or transformed. In Ojibwe culture, they have the terms ikwekaazo and ininiikaazo which loosely translate to trans woman and trans man respectively.

How should I refer to two-spirit people?

Because two-spirit is an umbrella term that encompasses a range of different identities and cultures, the individuals within this umbrella use a range of different terms and pronouns to refer to themselves.

As with any gender identity, it’s important to check in with the individual and ask how they would like to be referred to, and respect that. Some indigenous trans and non-binary people choose not to use this term for themselves, and that’s valid too. Not all cultures or tribes accept this term, acknowledge genders outside of the binary, or use gendered language at all. Primarily, it’s vital not to assume anyone’s identity, cultural norms or pronouns without asking first.

This is part of our official queer glossary – check it out!